Why the “Christian life” isn’t worth living

For most of my life, I focused my faith on knowing Jesus through morality management. More accurately, Jesus was savior and the Spirit was the voice that helped give me the strength to avoid things like cussing, gossip, lust, and pride. Getting through a single day where those sins were avoided meant a major victory as I walked closer to Christ.

In college, a new sort of emphasis emerged in my Christian journey. Instead of seeing discipleship as a system of sin management, I discovered the red letters of Scripture. These words of Jesus (along with the actions of Christ that aren’t in red) propelled me in a new direction: justice.

Compulsively, I would give a few bucks to homeless people as they asked. In my youth curriculum (while I served as a youth pastor), more of the emphasis moved toward Christian activism. That is not to say that I didn’t care about relational aspects of knowing God, but that justice (at times superficial forms there of) became a primary emphasis. As a result many areas became important in my personal life: signing every progressive petition that would lead to influencing the system for the poor, avoiding stores that are known for their social Darwinism, and purchasing anything I could find that is organic.

It would be safe to say that I went from conservative evangelical focuses to a progressive faith emphasis. Still holding to the essentials of the Christian theology, but believing that true discipleship meant doing certain things. It’s interesting to me looking back: at one end of the pendulum of my faith journey I tried to avoid things, and at the other end of the swing I tried to do things. Both attempts at living the Christian life miss the point of discipleship – completely!

Which begs the question: What’s the point?

I’m becoming convinced that both polarities of holiness miss the point. We aren’t supposed to live as though God is a cop, ready to bust us each time we sin. Neither does God call us to work ourselves so hard that we become void of spiritual vitality. In this sense, the Christian life isn’t worth living.

I’ve quoted Dallas Willard elsewhere but this is worth noting a second time:

“Jesus never expected us simply to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who persecute us, give unto them that ask, and so forth.  These responses, generally and rightly understood to be characteristic of Chrsitlikeness, were put forth by him as illustrative of what might be expected of a new kind of person – one who intelligently and steadfastly seeks, above all else, to live within the rule of God and be possessed by the kind of righteousness that God himself has, as Matthew 6:33 portrays.  Instead, Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do.  For a person living that life, the hard thing to do would be to hate the enemy, to turn the supplicant away, or to curse the curser…  True Christlikeness, true companionship with Christ, comes at the point where it is hard not to respond as he would.”[1]

This “responding like Jesus would” impulse comes to us in many places – like the Sermon on the Mount – but also in 1 Peter 2:

21 You were called to this kind of endurance, because Christ suffered on your behalf. He left you an example so that you might follow in his footsteps. 22 He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. 23 When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

Did you notice the reason that Jesus was able to endure such horrendous violence? Jesus “entrusted himself” to his heavenly Father. Prior to enduring the sufferings of the cross, with beads mixed of sweat and blood dripping down his brow, he humbly accepted the will of God the Father. In that painful, yet intimate moment, Jesus’ relationship to God took the ultimate leap forward, a deep knowing that led to a profound trust.

Jesus had chosen to know the Father’s will so much that it determined the natural impulses of his actions toward his enemies. Peter invites us to model our lives in the same way. How do we live as people of peace? The answer begins with “entrusting” ourselves to God, allowing the life of God to transform our character. When this happens, enduring unjust treatment via nonviolence will become part of our second nature.

The same is true of every other justice issue. God empowers us to become the sort of people whose impulses are bent toward love, and this happens when we create space in our lives to know God intimately. Justice and spirituality go together!

And, what of my former moral management approach to faith? Well, the sort of morality that God desires is a morality formed by the Spirit of Christ. Anything that looks like self-help strategies to administer a sin prevention plan misses the point of holiness all together. Christ wants to make our impulses bent toward holiness, including social justice, not dependent on our own legalistic strategies.

Certainly, we ought to also practice doing justice and living morally, even when we feel spiritually deflated. Those moments also work toward intimacy with God. In fact, in serving is how many people come to know Jesus the most. The risk is that we allow all of our doing to replace moments with God in our own Garden of Gethsemane, when some of the most profound “entrusting” and character formation by the Spirit takes place. No wonder Jesus often got alone for prayer before major Kingdom moments.

The Christian life isn’t worth living as I used to understand it. Instead, what if we all chose to allow the life of God to live in and among us? With such a reframe, holiness coupled with justice might just become more like second nature.

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  • http://twitter.com/dollabillsay billy m and tara o

    great thoughts!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Thanks so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lance.linderman.3 Lance Linderman

    Love it man!

  • Jeff K. Clarke

    Thanks, Kurt. I’ve often said that the Sermon on the Mount is a description of how and what those who have embraced Jesus’ kingdom are to live. It’s an upside right way of living that reflects the reality of the new kingdom. If Jesus is king, then he has the right to tell us how to live. And, this living is defined by loving neighbor and enemy.

  • Hilson thomas

    I normally disagree with something that people say about the Christian faith, if they talk for long enough… But I agree with everything you have said here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Patriot71 Matt Young

    Brother, well said. Speaks right to the heart of what it really means to be “Christ like”.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Thanks bro. That means a lot!

  • http://twitter.com/superrustyfly superrustyfly

    Great post. I’ll admit that connect the two ends of the spectrum into being one thing is the hardest thing to do.

  • http://thepaperskies.com David Helms

    Truth, and I have been in both camps. In the swells and falls of faith I’m that Christ is mostly in the middle. Speaking of “worth living” in one of his books Tony Campolo asked a question that really forced me to think about these things in a new light. “If there wasn’t a promise of eternal life, would you still be a Christian? Is this kind of lifestyle worth living?”

    The answer has to be yes, most “sins” are things that kill us or at least cause a dark mindset, and living a generous lifestyle to be honest feels awesome. Living with purpose, like you have creator, is vital. And feeling as if you have communion with that creator is even better.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Great thoughts! thanks for sharing David!

      Kurt Willems

  • Peter

    I agree, Christianity has many things backwards. It’s not the Christian life, but it is the Life in Christ. When the Father looks at us, He just sees Christ. It’s not that we need to live like Christ, but that Christ desires to live through us. We are His Body and He is our Head. He is the Tree of Life and we are His branches, receiving His flowing Life and bearing His fruit.

  • Amal

    Well said. I’ve been walking with Christ for not so long, yet everyday I learn and absorb new things. Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/graceshaker graceshaker

    inspiring post. i pray to be a person whose impulses are bent toward love..

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

    Kurt, you and I are on the same journey. The difference being that I spent more time in the more conservative “Say the prayer and get saved” side than the progressive social justice side…but the end result is the same.

    Good to share the journey with you, brother.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Good to share the journey with you as well :-)

      KURT WILLEMS

  • http://twitter.com/djhalleu djhalleu

    Well done, faithful servant. Truth is a person that actually loves you.

  • http://twitter.com/shelleygiard Shelley Giard

    This was AWESOME! I feel the EXACT same way and share in my blogs as well. Kudos man.. this was right on and beautifully written!
    http://www.shelleygiard.blogspot.com
    http://www.beautynerdwellnessgeek.com

  • http://twitter.com/toucanic Dan Schmidt

    ‘…entrusting God to transform character’: a clear call, and a worthy aim. And the ‘reframe’ that couples holiness with justice? This too seems like a good way to talk about the reconciliation that lies at the heart of kingdom life. Thanks for these expressions, and nudges.

  • Guest

    “The Christian life isn’t worth living as I used to understand it.
    Instead, what if we all chose to allow the life of God to live in and
    among us?”…
    Personally, and as I work with people as a Christian counselor in Tampa, FL, I try to focus should on living life from the “inside out” and all that entails. God already lives in us and as we let that reality manifest life becomes more satisfying.

  • Guest

    “The Christian life isn’t worth living as I used to understand it.
    Instead, what if we all chose to allow the life of God to live in and
    among us?”…
    Personally, and as I work with people as a Christian counselor in Tampa, FL, I try to focus should on living life from the “inside
    out” and all that entails. God already lives in us and as we let that
    reality manifest life becomes more satisfying.

  • Guest

    "The Christian life isn’t worth living as I used to understand it.
    Instead, what if we all chose to allow the life of God to live in and
    among us?"…
    Personally, and as I work with people as a Christian counselor in Tampa, FL, I try to focus should on living life from the "inside out" and all that entails. God already lives in us and as we let that reality manifest life becomes more satisfying.

  • Jeff Zimm

    I like this one dude.

  • Robert H. Woodman

    Kurt, have you considered that the reason so many young people today abandon the church is because they get caught up living in one extreme or the other of holiness, fail miserably at it, and then abandon it because no one has shown them how to live in the middle of the pendulum’s arc? Your post sort of clarified that thought in me. What do you think?

  • Jose Gonzales

    The Christian life as defined by Pauline theology is worthless because its a life that’s no different than the life of an atheist. “Faith alone” — so you’re the same as everyone else, but you believe in some mythology on the side. Oh bravo! If your faith doesn’t make you live a better moral life — if in fact, it makes you live WORSE morally (as faith in Pauline theology and ‘faith alone’ always does) — then its time to toss it with yesterday’s garbage.

    • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

      I’m not sure I understand where you get that Pauline theology is the life of an atheist. Looking at Romans 12 certainly doesn’t describe it as such. Some of the letters include lists of sins that would match the “moral life” that you seem to think is important.

      Could you clarify, Jose, what you mean by your statements?

  • http://twitter.com/TheWriteWeb E.J.Smith

    Wonderful post! It reminds me of John 15:7 “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish…” and it shall be granted. But I am caught on “abide in me”. We should abide in the Lord. Study His word, meditate, pray, worship, and praise. These are good things.

    Lately, I have been seeing more ignorance among believers and unbelievers and seen so much death that I am left wondering…Shouldn’t Christians show that God is about justice as well? I know we live by the Gospels, yet even Jesus quoted the Old Testament and God is the same today, yesterday, and forever. God is multifaceted like we are. He is love and mercy, but also justice and Holy. I mean I am far from perfect- but God is perfect.

    Yet, we are not helping the world by singing, “Jesus is a friend of ours and he loves us no matter what”. It is time we plug into the Lord and see what he needs from us by seeking first his kingdon and righteousness…(Matthew 6:33)

    Thanks again for this enlightening post. I truly enjoyed it!

  • http://twitter.com/PaulRobinson33 Paul Robinson/nugget

    Reading Tom Wright’s book ‘Virtue Reborn’ (or ‘After You Believe’ for the US market) and I can honestly say that it could end up being one of the most important books for me in showing me what Jesus had in mind for us as how to live as Christians. Everyone who is insterested in this (and let’s be honest that should be all of us) should check it out.

    In fact in the book Tom Wright would argue for the same position you land on in your first couple of paragraphs.

  • Patty Felker

    This article reminds me of a song I wrote a few years ago called Hope of Glory. It’s all about how our goal in life is to have the Spirit of Christ formed in us, so we can become like Him. And then, eventually, be united with Him in heaven for eternity. Hope you can take a listen.
    http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/3448485

  • Anne

    Very true and insightful! I needed to hear this today!

  • anonymous

    YES!

    I came by to delete your site from my bookmarks. I hadn’t seen anything like this on your site for some time. I quit visiting. I saw your link in my toolbar this morning and thought, I’ll give it one last look before I delete it. I’m glad I did. I gives me hope to see others who get it. Thank you for writing this. Oh….I won’t be deleting your link =)

  • Suzanne Burden

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/ Bill

    Very well said. I’ve found myself in those places too. It’s so much easier (for me at least) to be a rule-follower, or a supporter of all the right causes, than to be a disciple. Trying to figure that out will be a life’s work for me.

  • walejana
  • John Backman

    Brilliant. This reminds me of a tour I took through the Gospels a few years back, with the specific aim of finding the precise dogma that Jesus asked us to believe. What I found instead was what you’ve pointed out here, Kurt: an internal life filled with the Spirit that manifests itself in love and justice. That’s a Christian life I’d be happy to live every day.

  • Pat Hazard

    well said!

  • Stephen John

    This is the parable of the two lost sons in a nut shell…one rejects ‘religions of man’, the other focuses solely on it, put the cart before horse, works based belief begins with a works mentality and not Trusting God …viz. Grace (Christ) based Faith) wherein lies our Hope.


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